Everyone should be asking candidates tough questions

16 Nov 2019, 5:00

The Headteachers’ Roundtable’s “Big 5” election manifesto gives a new vision of professionalism and trust, restoring confidence in education, writes Ros McMullen

The education system is in crisis. Recruitment and retention, funding, special needs provision, accountability and ethical leadership are all at breaking point, but it won’t do to look at these five factors individually. It is the interplay between them that creates the crisis, and it is here that the solution will be found.

Retention and recruitment, for example, are far more complex than simple work-life balance; accountability has created a damaging cocktail of drivers for unethical behaviour, unfair funding, and lack of specialist provision that, taken together, have led to a long-term erosion of vocation and joy.

The Headteachers’ Roundtable’s manifesto is unequivocal that “every pupil needs a good teacher if they are to thrive and flourish”, but we have a whole generation of teachers who believe the biggest driver in their school is “keeping Ofsted happy”. No wonder we do not retain enough of our teachers, and how deeply depressing!

Early indications are that the new education inspection framework is making little difference to the strong correlation between Progress 8 and a school’s inspection outcome. Tinkering with the framework is not the problem here.

Our accountability system is totally unfit for purpose

We know schools labelled ‘outstanding’ who live in fear of losing that status. We know colleagues who have devoted their lives to working in the most challenging of circumstances to transform communities, and live in fear of losing their jobs. We know outstanding and respected leaders who have lost their jobs. And every day teachers hear leaders saying “we have to do this because it’s what Ofsted – or the DfE or the regional schools commissioner [delete as appropriate] – wants”.

Nobody wants an unregulated education system. Nobody wants schools that are unable to benchmark themselves, nor teachers who have no idea how effective they are, nor underperformance that goes unchallenged. Yet our data-led, judgment-based accountability system is totally unfit for purpose.

From the EBacc measure that narrows curriculum offer to the punitive consequences of behaving inclusively, school leaders are desperately trying to maintain quality, inclusion and ethical behaviour in a system driving the opposite. What we have is a system that has emerged through incrementally solving one problem caused by holding schools to account only to cause several more.  And that has gone on for years.

The strong correlation of Progress 8 data to Ofsted judgments, and of both to the socio-economic backgrounds of the parent body show how little things have changed. The only real change is the increasing disincentive for anyone to work in disadvantaged communities.

Across education, high stakes have led to a ‘football manager syndrome’ and a crisis in recruiting and retaining the high calibre of teachers and leaders we need in those communities.

Serious underfunding only makes this worse. Too many of our most vulnerable learners are not receiving the education they need, with provision determined by “what is possible” rather than by children’s needs, compounding perverse incentives towards exclusion and unethical behaviours.

School governors and headteachers consistently report the stress caused by the challenge of cutting essentials. Less-than-honest government reporting of school funding exacerbates the situation by reducing trust at a time when it has never been more important for school leaders to be able to feel secure.

All this creates a toxic working environment for leaders and teachers: the drivers in the system are towards all the behaviours that reduce job satisfaction, reduce trust and damage inclusivity.

If adopted, our detailed policy recommendations will begin to reverse the decline and restore confidence. They stand for far more than incremental and piecemeal reforms, but a new vision of professionalism and trust. This, above all, is essential to create a climate in which teachers and leaders can be recruited and retained, and all our children flourish.

Your thoughts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *